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    Maple Syrup

    Before I start … dear friend, dear, dear friend, I can see you from here, pixie with the flame red hair, hanging your head and groaning. This certainly falls under the ‘Ernie Wonders Why!?’ category. Read on …

    Maine winters are tough. And long. And cold. Long and grey. Long and dreary. Did I mention long?

    This winter has been particularly harsh. Though, truth be told, the harshness started at the end of FEBRUARY! You know, that point in the winter season when snow should be melting, wistfully waiting for the first crocus to peer it’s little head out of the ground. This winter NOT SO MUCH.

    We have had nor’easter after nor’easter dumping FEET of snow at a time.

    This is the point in time when we look outside, seeing nothing but snow, we try to find some project to occupy ourselves. I’ve knit enough. I am cooked out (HA!), crafted out. The Dear One has made enough noise and dust in the shop and is at a stopping point in construction.

    We thought our salvation had come while running errands in Vermont a few weeks ago, we saw a maple syrup making kit. Light bulbs went off, eyebrows raised, glances shared, this may just be the thing to beat the winter blues. Did we buy it? NO! It was expensive. They didn’t have taps, just tubing, and we left that big box of hope on the shelf. Disappointment all around. The thought of tapping our own trees kept rolling in our minds on that quick 8 hour drive home.

    Maple Syrup. Maple Syrup. What did (maple syrup) you say, dear? Maple Syrup. What do we need (maple syrup) from the store. Would you like chicken (maple syrup) for dinner tonight? See?

    We finally had a (short) reprieve from the bitter cold … actually crawled up to 40! Hmmm … sap runs on warm days. Honey, says the Dear One, let’s give maple syrup a whirl! YAY!

    Off to the store I went and we purchased 1 drill bit, 4 pails for gathering the sap, 4 spiles (taps with hooks), 1 lid, 3 disposable lasagna pans, 1 very large steam pan, 1 5 gallon bucket.

    The Dear One built a fire pit outside for the fire, gathered some wood for the fire – we used various conifer trees that we had cut dow, surely we’re not using the wood for the wood stove for this! Just outside the front door there is a cinderblock base, with a piece of grating on top, a pan on top of that, an old chair from the elementary school, various coolers filled with varying amounts of sap. It looks like Appalachia out there … or a war zone …

    Ready, set, go!

    Or so we thought.

    We picked the 4 maple trees for their closeness to each other, the fire and the house. In hindsight, trees easier to get to in case you get walloped with 2 feet of snow is probably a good thing. 2 of these trees involved a short walk up the driveway, across a gully with a steep edge and slogging.

    The Dear One drilled the holes and we hung the pails. Sap started dripping into the buckets almost immediately. The lid in the above photo is not ideal, though it will happily be sold to you for ridiculous amount of money. The wind blows it open. Falling snow and ice shifts the lid. The disposable lasagna pans I bought can be moulded to the pail and stay in place much better – and they cost $1.99 for 3 of them.

    So, as the sap drips we kept an eye on the pails. We emptied the pails into the bucket – as you can see, Bob helped too!  As an aside, just as we were about to begin to boil – WHAM – snow. We poured the sap into 3 small coolers and one large cooler, put them in the shade in a snow bank and hunkered down – again!

    Next step – build a fire. You need dry wood. Lots and lots of dry wood. Lots and lots of dry wood. Our first attempt at fire didn’t work so well. So bad in fact, that sap was going to be dumped and things were being kicked around the yard. We decided to give up and be prepared for this next year. But just as I was about to start cleaning out ALL the coolers, buckets, pans, etc., The Dear One had a Wylie Coyote moment and found a cache of dry spruce and built a roaring fire. Well, perhaps we were off to the races after all!

    You pour the sap into the pan. It’s a little disheartening. It’s clear. It’s water. It tastes like nothing. I was hoping for a hint of something. A soupçon. Nope. Nothing. Sigh. You know you’re going to be feeding this fire for a long, long time, you just hope the end result looks and tastes more like maple syrup than this beginning.

    And you wait for a boil (and drink beer).

    And feed the fire.

    And wait for a boil (maybe Allen’s Coffee Brandy is better).

    And feed the fire.

    And wait for the boil (where’s the bourbon).

    Suddenly, in between your 3rd or 4th time of feeding the fire (and drinks) the sap boils! You start to do a dance around the fire reminiscent of Max and the Monsters in The Wild Things. It boils down, you add more sap, comes to a boil (dance some more), it boils down (feed the fire), you add more (sip of drink) sap, comes back to a (dance, dance, dance) boil, feed the fire (almost forgot that for a moment and the fire NEARLY went out), AND REPEAT many, many times (wait, check the pails some more)!

    You’re waiting – well, in our case, to use up the sap we had on hand – for a color and a certain viscosity and, truth be told, we have NO clue whatsoever what we’re waiting for – perhaps Godot).

    We punted. It was cold. It had been HOURS. All our sap was in the pan boiling. There were no more snacks or beer. The sun was setting. We made the executive decision that this was good enough. It most likely should have boiled longer.

    Now you pour the molten hot sap/syrup through a strainer that is really just a gigantic coffee filter and into a big pot. Did I mention hot? Hot fire. Hot pan. Hot liquid.

    Into the house now for the 2nd boil. You’re trying to get to a soft ball stage – or as one of Mr. Google’s friends said – 7 degrees above boiling water for your elevation. Really? Just give me a number, a temperature. I’m exhausted. At this point, I hate this project. I hate maple trees. I smell like Smokey the Bear. I’m nearly blind from the smoke and soot in my eyes. AND THERE’S STILL MORE TO DO!

    This sap/syrup needs to be boiled down more. You want that amber color. You want it to coat the back of a spoon. You want to watch it like a hawk – as the friends of Google instructed – because one second too long and your 8 hours of agony could be ruined. As with the outside boil, this probably should have gone on a bit longer as well.

    Not being able to stop myself, I made my toil linger. I decided once I reached the right temperature and thickness, I was going to then ‘can’ the syrup so it would last. I’m not sure I needed to do this and there are opposing views on whether this step was necessary, but I thought why tempt fate!? And besides, at this point I am delirious and I could have moved Cadillac Mountain to Canada as long as I could shower!

    In the end 20 gallons of sap made 3 pints of maple syrup. Sigh! Stop laughing, Ernestine.

    What we’ve learned:

    • Have lots of dry wood.
    • Make sure the Dear One has had plenty of sleep.
    • Make sure there’s a lot of beer and snacks.
    • Start early.
    • Get two chairs to sit by the fire – not that you can figure out where to put the chairs so smoke doesn’t go in your eyes.
    • More beer (a suggestion by the Dear One)
    • Build a sugar shack!
    • Let it boil outside longer
    • Let it boil inside longer
    • GO TO THE STORE AND BUY MAPLE SYRUP!!

    Yes, Ernie, I know. They sell real maple syrup in the store. Even my Dad said, have you heard of Log Cabin?

    Truthfully, nothing beats this taste! The flavor is totally worth the agony.

    We’re waiting for it to warm up a bit. We’re going to do this one more time. What can I tell you? It must be like child birth. You forget the pain and agony. If you didn’t why would people do these things more than once!

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    Peach Salsa

    peach-salsa

    When the Dear One and I talked about getting married – really, the hows and wheres and whos part of getting married – it became apparent to us that we wanted only two things out of the ceremony (1) it had to be small and (2) we wanted all of our children there. Wait, maybe we wanted another – we wanted to be married.

    Between us, there are 4 children (I always in include my dear daughter-in-law in that number), 7 parents, 4 sisters and 2 brothers, as well as their husbands, boyfriends, girlfriends. There is NOTHING small about that group of people. There is nothing intimate about that group of people. There is nothing simple about placing all those people in the same place at the same time.

    Okay, so how about just you and me, our kids, someone to marry us, a best man and maid of honor. Everyone else? Well, we’re adults, this isn’t the first time for either of us, this is our choice and, hopefully, they will just be happy for us. We chose to be married this way and at our age not anyone else’s place to have issue or commentary.

    Trying to put the 4 kids in the same place at the same time was proving impossible. We tried for 6 months and just couldn’t manage. It had to be all of them or none of them. How do you explain to the ones who couldn’t be there on a specific date and time that others would be there and we would just go on without them. Sadly, after trying to arrange something, it had to be none. We didn’t handle it very well – correct that – one of us didn’t handle that very well and it isn’t the one typing. Okay, okay, I didn’t handle some things well either.

    But I honestly believe that it’s all about how you recover from your mistakes that really counts. If you make a mistake, and don’t admit the mistake and do nothing to rectify it, you’ve learned nothing and will likely do something very similar again. I believe that parents should apologize when they’re wrong – and we were wrong. I believe now we’re in a very good place together as a family. Our definition of family.

    There is, though, one person, who I doubt will read this, thank you from the bottom of my heart. Your words meant more to us than you can possibly imagine. We will keep that note always.

    We realized then, that as much as we love that small army of people, we married each other – not our mothers or fathers or sisters or brothers – each other. To a certain extent our children – it takes a village, don’t you know. We have a favorite son, a favorite older daughter, a favorite younger daughter and a favorite daughter-in-law. Mix them all together, add lots of love and a little understanding and patience, two adults who just love them to bits – oh, really, there’s no place else I’d rather be and no other people I’d rather be here with.

    It’s that melding of people – all very different, things in common here and there, but somehow melded to make a family unit that bring me to … TADA! Peach Salsa.

    peaches

    This past summer we had TONS of peaches! You remember the Peach Liqueur – I think I do! There will be Peach Jam coming up.

    I found this recipe in Small Batch Preserving. I’ve had it book marked forever, but I’m not quite comfortable with canning yet, so I would look at the book and cast it aside and then look and cast … the more I delve into it, the more I do like it.

    The peaches bring a certain sweetness, a bit of kick from the jalapeño, tartness from the lime, they just all come together for one incredible bite.

    The worst part of this salsa is peeling and chopping the peaches. IF – and that’s a big IF – I made a single batch, it might not have been so awful, but I doubled it. By the end of dipping them into boiling water, you JUST DON’T CARE.

    • 2 C chopped, peeled peaches (about 4 medium peaches)
    • 1/4 C finely chopped red onion
    • 1/4 C finely chopped red pepper
    • 1 T finely chopped jalapeno
    • 2 T honey
    • 1/4 t pickling salt
    • grated rind and juice of 1 lime
    • 2 T finely chopped mint

    NOTE: To peel the peaches, bring a large pot of water to a boil. On the counter next to that pot have a large bowl of ice water. Place a couple of peaches in the boiling water for 20 or 30 seconds, transfer to the ice water. After a few seconds, the skins will pop right off. By the end you and your kitchen will be covered in sticky peach juice, but it’s totally worth it!

    ingredients

    Combine peaches, onion, peppers, honey, salt, lime rind and juice in a medium stainless steel or enamel saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce heat and boil gently, uncovered, for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.

    simmering

    Stir in mint and stir for 1 minute.

    NOTE: Not a huge mint fan so I used half the amount.

    Remove jares from canner and ladle salsa into jars within 1/2 ” of rim (head space). Process 10 minutes for half-pint or pint jars.

    NOTE: I process the jars in the dishwasher. I try to time the end of the dishwasher cycle to the salsa being ready.

     

    Bread and Butter Pickles

    Done

    This falls under the posts I wasn’t able to do during computer-geddon.

    So, what should we plant in our garden, says me.

    Well, we need to have cucumbers. Ava loves cucumbers, says the Dear One.

    Well, okie dokie, thinking to myself … I don’t really like cucumbers. Do we have to plant A LOT of them? Strike that … I like tzatziki. I like pickles. I like to use them in a sauce for salmon. I do like a little bit raw and in a salad. L-I-T-T-L-E bit.

    In the cucumber plants go. Off goes the gardener (a/k/a the Dear One) to work in Russia for 3 weeks. And suddenly KA-BOOOOM it’s cucumber hell.

    You know that neighbor you have or have heard about? The ones that leave zucchini on your doorstep and run away? Well, that was me! The cucumber monster.

    Even with giving them away there were tons around. Now, the Dear One does not eat anything pickled … sigh. But I DO and he was away and I was bored and I needed something to do to entertain myself. (lotso justifying going’ on here)

    And then I came across this recipe for Bread & Butter pickles over at Recipe Girl and realized I had this great cookbook Cooking Light’s Cooking Through the Seasons on my bookshelves. Ta da! I was set!

    What I did do, though, being the only pickle person on the premises was ‘can’ them. Something I have wanted to try for quite some time, and there will be more of this following. My mother now refers to me as ‘my daughter, Laura Ingalls’.

    I was a bit nervous about this canning process at first, but once I started it was off to the races. I didn’t can much this year. I much happier with things in the chest freezer we have. But now I’ve started this there are a host of things I have ready to try for next year!

    To very loosely quote Bob Wiley (and if you don’t know the character or the movie … sigh) – I’m canning! I’m canning! I’m canning! I can! I’m a canner! I can!

    I was surprised at how easy the pickle part of this project was. For some reason I had an entire saga that went on when you pickle something.

    • 5 1/2 C (1 1/2 pounds) thinly sliced pickling cucumbers
    • 1 1/2 T kosher salt
    • 1 C thinly sliced sweet onion
    • 1 C granulated white sugar
    • 1 C white vinegar
    • 1/2 C apple cider vinegar
    • 1/4 C light brown sugar (packed)
    • 1 1/2 t mustard seeds
    • 1/2 t celery seeds
    • 1/8 t ground turmeric

    Combine cucumbers and salt in a large, shallow bowl; cover and chill 1 1/2 hours. Move cucumbers into a colander and rinse thoroughly under cold water. Drain well, and return cucumbers to bowl. Add onion to the bowl.

    NOTE: When you’re slicing the cucumbers, don’t slice them too thinly. You want them to have a bit of substance to them so they’ll hold up in the pickling liquid.

    Add onions

    Combine sugar and remaining ingredients in a medium saucepan; bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour hot vinegar mixture over cucumber mixture; let stand at room temperature 1 hour. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours. Store in an airtight container in refrigerator up to 2 weeks or give them a hot water bath to seal the jars and they’ll store forever … for a very long time … until you’re ready to use them.

    Pickled Peppers

    If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, this would be the pickled peppers Peter Piper would pick!

    Tommy is addicted to – YES, addicted to – pickled peppers on his sandwiches. He goes through at least a jar a week. That really adds up after a while!

    I have been dying to try my hand at pickles, pickled beets, dilly beans, SOMETHING! I want to can and preserve and see jars lining my pantry shelves.

    The problem? I AM A CHICKEN! What if I get too overwhelmed? What if the jars EXPLODE in the water bath? What if after the water bath the tops don’t vacuum close? What if, after all of this work and horrors, whatever I put up tastes YUCKY!?

    This sort of stuff keeps me up nights.

    And then I happened upon the wonderful blog Seasoned to Taste! What did she make? Pickled peppers! It was fate!  Come on, girl, put on your big girl pants and give it a try! What’s the worst that happens? They’re terrible and you throw them out!

    So off I went  – I bought peppers. I bought jars. Shaking in my boots, I started –

    • 3 C sliced peppers
    • 3 C white vinegar
    • 1 C water
    • 3 cloves garlic, crushed

     

    NOTE: I used Italian frying peppers. And, although Seasoned to Taste used hot peppers, for my first try I decided to stay sweet.

    Sanitize jars and lids. Once clean, remove without touching insides to cool on a clean towel.

    NOTE: Okay. I am a canning dunce. I washed the jars and lids in my dishwasher – which doesn’t have a sanitize button, but does have a super hot wash and dry cycle. Also, I waited to begin the dishwasher until I was absolutely ready to start. I cut up the pepper first, started the wash, put the water up to boil for the water bath.

    Set two large stainless steel (or non-aluminum) pots on the stove, one filled with enough water to submerge jars. Heat water-filled pot.

    In second pot, combine vinegar, water and garlic. Bring to boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat and boil for 5 min. Discard garlic.

    Pack peppers into sanitized jars and ladle hot pickling liquid in, leaving 1/2 inch head space. Tap to remove air bubbles, wipe rim. Center lid on jar and tighten.

    NOTE: This centering and tightening had me completely a little nuts. Is the lid on straight? Wait, that rim feels crooked.  

    Place jars in canning pot of water, bring to a boil, cover and process 10 min. Remove lid, wait 5 min. then remove jars and cool. Once cooled, you will feel that the seal has snapped shut. Store, or open and eat!

    NOTE: I placed a dishcloth on the bottom of the pot so the jars wouldn’t clank around as much. Of course, I didn’t read the directions properly and put the jars in water already boiling! My second batch I re-read and slapped myself in the forehead and did it the right way! Now, my question is: “Remove lid and wait 5 minutes.”  Is that 5 minutes lid off, heat on or 5 minutes lid off, heat off? See why pickling drives me insane!?

    I have now done this twice. Once totally sweet, the second with a hot chili involved. They’re sitting on a shelf. The boy walks by and stares at them. A few more days and he can have at ’em!

    By the way, when you first take them out of the water, the lids are tight. Then suddenly they are loose! Then I go in a panic and walk away disgusted. Then I come back when the jars are much cooler and like magic the lids are tight and sealed!

    Now, how easy was that? What were you all so worried about?